on 10 January 2010
Alan Hollinghurst's novel, The Line of Beauty has the backdrop of 1980's London, when the political and social barometer was veering towards family values with the impending rise of Thatcherism and the spotlight shone firmly on politician's private lives. The novel explores the professional and private lives of the Fedden family and particularly focuses on their lodger, friend and the main protagonist Nick Guest.
The comedic skill of Alan Hollinghurst makes the reader laugh and cry at the same time. The hedonistic lifestyle of Nick Guest is revealed to the reader but may surprise some of his fellow characters. Oxford student Nick appears to be a sophisticated together guy, but his life is spiralling out of control with his relationships and cocaine use. Nick seems to be a character that it would be hard to like but through his willingness to please, he wins over the empathy of the reader, sadly for Nick things don't always go his way.
The novel deals with homosexuality, AIDS, the 1980's period and Thatcherism, as the predominant themes, these are also present in other novels by Hollinghurst such as The Fading Star which won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1994.
Hollinghurst's writing is a joy to read in this well crafted and refreshingly honest story, in which the reader is given an open window into the hidden liberal lifestyle of Nick Guest. Sometimes explicit, but always written with sophisticated style, you may find the novel startlingly frank, laugh out loud funny and thought provoking. Acclaimed by critics and readers alike and with Hollinghurst's pedigree as a contemporary novelist, it is no surprise that The Line of Beauty was nominated and subsequently won the Man Booker Prize in 2004.
Definitely a must read!
on 4 April 2005
"It's about someone who loves things more than people. And who ends up with nothing, of course. I know it's bleak, but then I think it's probably a very bleak book, even though it's essentially a comedy." This is Nick Guest, the central character in Alan Hollinghurst's marvellous fourth novel, actually speaking about Henry James' book "The Spoils of Poynton", which he has been turning into a (doomed, of course) film script. However, in a typical instance of Hollinghurst's scalpel-sharp irony, both the reader and Nick himself realise just as he speaks these words that he might as well be discussing his own narrative.
Like a lot of people, I was mildly surprised (not having read the book) when it won the Booker prize, and at first I wasn't convinced: social satire has arguably been done to death, and many of us would probably rather forget the whole yuppie, Thatcherite era. However, there is far more to this book - which is indeed surprisingly bleak despite often being laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes in the same paragraph - than mere social satire. The appropriately named Nick Guest is a rather impressionable young gay man who finds himself attached to the family of his university pal Toby Fedden, who is terribly nice but frightfully posh and unequivocally straight. The Fedden family - including father Gerald, an upwardly-mobile Tory MP and mother Rachel who comes from Old Money - find it quite handy to have Nick around as official Gay Buddy and unofficial minder for their mentally unstable daughter Catherine. However, Nick's affairs are more complicated than they seem, and while on the surface he is all polished charm, he is becoming ever more deeply embroiled in a damaging clandestine relationship with millionaire playboy Wani Ouradi, including random threesomes and heavy cocaine use. It doesn't exactly require rocket science to see that Nick is headed for disaster.
The title is another lovely example of Hollinghurst's irony. On one level it is a cheap pun: a lot of the "beautiful lines" here consist of white powder, snorted through a rolled-up banknote (indeed, Wani Ouradi explicitly describes a cocaine fix as "a Line of Beauty" which is clearly something of an In Joke between Nick and himself). However, on a deeper level, it describes Nick's whole approach to life. The original "Line of Beauty" is the S-shaped double curve, which was thought by William Hogarth to be the model of aesthetic perfection in painting and architecture, and which is also seen by Nick in the writings of Henry James. Nick is working in a half-hearted way on a Ph.D. thesis concerning James, and Hollinghurst's novel contains many conscious tributes to the Master and his work. Nick's life is filled with up-curves and down-curves: the most striking example of this is perhaps a revealing dream in which he sees himself climbing a double staircase, half of which is a grand ceremonial space in some great house, the other half a squalid back-stairway in the servants' quarters. "Small doors, flush with the panelling ... gave access, at every turn, to the back stairs, and their treacherous gloom." This is clearly a metaphor for Nick's double life: the charm and polish of his public life concealing the utter mess of his private life.
But why should the reader care? Well, because for all his apparent selfishness and his parasitic existence, Nick is a strangely likeable character. Despite his constant pursuit of hedonistic pleasure and aesthetic beauty, it isn't entirely true to say that he "loves things more than people". He actually loves a number of people: his first boyfriend, a black council worker; the troubled and manipulative Wani; manic-depressive Catherine Fedden; indeed, the Fedden family as a whole. The tragedy is that his basic dishonesty about his life (he is always pretending to be something he isn't) induces a sort of moral paralysis, so that he is somehow never able to actualise his love for these various people, and ends up letting almost everyone down in a variety of painfully complex ways.
In addition to this, Hollinghurst sets Nick's small personal tragedy against the backdrop of a much bigger tragedy. As well as being the era of Margaret Thatcher, the Eighties were of course the era of AIDS, and the Plague casts a long and sinister shadow over the whole book. In some ways, the final few chapters become a sort of Anthem for Doomed Youth, and powerfully bring home the sheer human cost of the epidemic.
So, in a year with a particularly strong Booker shortlist, did this one really deserve the Big Prize? Yes, I would say, by a whisker.
on 16 February 2006
The book begins in 1983 when Nick Guest, freshly graduated from Oxford, is given lodgings at his friend's parents house in London while he finds his feet. The house is owned by Gerald Fedden, a wealthy and ambitious Tory M.P. used to a life of luxury and privelege. Though lacking title, money or ambition, Nick is captivated by this glamourous scene and inveigles himself into the Fedden's life. As the hubris of the 80s gathers momentum, Nick finds himself circulating in the highest echelons of a society riddled with snobbery and greed to which he never really belongs. Aware that his precarious social position is dependent on his being charming, clever and inoffensive at all times, Nick is acutely observant of the people and places he visits. The novel concentrates on both Nick's experiences as the eternal hanger-on in the Fedden's world and his homosexual relationships during this time and the onset of the AIDS epidemic.
The characters are well-drawn and often amusing as they carefully maintain their social position or strive for ever more. The author wisely makes the Fedden's (even the buffoon Gerald) and their 'eternal guest' likeable. This is the first Alan Hollinghurst book I've read and, although I initially thought: "Oh no, not another English author completely obsessed about class", I soon found myself thoroughly enjoying it. The writing style is exquisite: elegant and understated; and the observations succinct and telling. It's one of the best novels I've read in quite a while.
on 21 May 2006
This book is about love, rejection, and the obsession with beauty. Although a little slow to begin with, the reader is soon lost in the story of a poor graduate trying to find love and keep up with his rich university friends as the 1980s enfold about him. The narrative is sublime and I was impressed by how well the author managed issues such as homosexuality, pursuit of power, adultery, friendship, AIDS, rejection and love with both realism and a frequent sprinkling of comedy. This was an immensely enjoyable book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys well-written, original prose that makes you think.
I find that Amazon reviewers usually get it right, especially on an average score over a good number of reviews, and this one looks just about right at a high 3-star / low 4-star, no matter how much this novel has been prized.
Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty is witty and very well-written social comedy. But it suffers from the genre's weakness, namely limited psychological depth. And it is entertaining, never boring, but never quite engrossing either. I remember reading something about a Victorian convention that novels always ought to be set twenty or so years, or a generation, in the past. This meets the standard exactly, aiming to describe the roaring but now already quaint-looking Thatcher years. Nick Guest is family friend and lodger to the well-to-do Feddens, including Toby, his Oxford mate, Gerald, an up-and-coming MP and ministerial material, his wife Rachel, and their rebellious daughter Catherine. Nick is moreover gay, and forced to navigate between secrecy and the budding tolerance of the times. Much of the book is devoted to Nick's hazardous love affairs: hazardous if only because this was also the first decade of AIDS. But soon he becomes embroiled in the Feddens' scandal-ridden fall.
The author pulls no punches, and his acerbic lines are good for the occasional laugh. But that is also where the fault lies. The Tories, and the Thatcher years, are given no respite. This novel has neither room for comprehension nor forgiveness. And I found Nick unrealistic at times, as a character - I am sure Hollinghurst is deeply erudite, and this seems in many ways his alter ego, but no one can carry Nick's encyclopaedic knowledge, ranging from English literature to French cathedrals to musical criticism and to eighteenth-century silverware, at age twenty-one. Holllinghurst's Line of Beauty is a great novel, but it lacks the compassion, and the subtlety of characterisation, of a classic.
on 14 December 2010
The Line of Beauty certainly delivers what it connotes in the title. A beautifully crafted text, the pages are thick with appreciation of beautiful objects and obsessive observations of intricate detail in every paragraph. The protagonist, an impressionable young, gay student, Nick Guest is staying with the Feddens where he is submerged in a world of wealth where he finds himself experiencing a life full of affluence, politics and scandal.
In the middle of it all, Nick finds himself torn to the beauty that surrounds him. In an infatuated manner Nick is caught like a blind man who sees sun for the first time. Picking up on every intricate detail, Hollinghurst paints vivid and nauseating imagery through Nick's narration. The lust within Nick is intense to the point of perverse, a man who keeps his thoughts to the surface, he is so encaged within himself that his mind run wilds and he caresses every detail.
However, the length of the book says nothing to the storyline, I found it very shallow and the breadth of it is filled with self indulgent hunger from Nick's mind, there are little times when his mind does not wander to a place more intimate, whether it be fantasy or a memory from last night's sexual experience. Unlike his fellow characters who are spared his constant sexual commentary, the reader cannot escape feeling uncomfortable at points. I don't question that this was the author's intent, nor that this is the aspect that other readers find most alluring about the book, however, it is an appetite not everyone possesses, and not a taste I particularly enjoyed.
The underlying issues surrounding the story are deep and sober giving the book more meaning, but parts of it are as awkward for the reader as they are for the characters described in the situation. The focus on beauty is a constant throughout and the tone set is dreamlike and smoky, reflecting the mood of Thatcher's London in the 1980's; joining cocaine, sex and scandal. It is intelligently written with interesting and well illustrated characters, however the self indulgence was the opposite of engaging. A harrowing ending leaves the characters in tatters, however it was difficult to feel sympathy for characters as shallow and selfish as these.
Once you get past the self-absorption of it all, there is a wonderful lust for beauty that cannot be ignored. The passion within the text is one which Hollinghurst submits unquestionably throughout the ups and downs of Nick Guests experience. There is an element of irony throughout, it could almost seem as though Hollinghurst has depicted himself in his characters, Nick Guest is in the middle of studying Henry James, of whom the novel is written in a very similar style, as well as Nick writing his own novel `about someone who loves things more than people'.
It is idealistic yet beautifully vulnerable and I would still place the novel as one of the most artfully crafted pieces of writing and a new perspective of a different life, however I would suggest it as anything but a beach read.
on 25 August 2012
At the time of writing this, this Kindle version of the Booker Prize winning 'The Line of Beauty' was a paltry 89p. I would say this is a fantastic bargain for a thoroughly entertaining story that I would retrospectively have paid full price for anyway!
The story follows Nick Guest, a gay graduate from Oxford University who has found himself adopted by the family of Gerald Fedden. Fedden is the father of Nick's friend from university, Toby. Gerald Fedden is a fairly prominent Conservative politician whose political career provides a constant background to the explorations of friendship, sexuality and drugs that the story engages with.
The most pleasing aspect about the novel is the way that it deploys Nick's viewpoint to flit in and out of the broader political context which avoids it becoming a staid political critique of Thatcher's Britain. Readers therefore avoid being manipulated towards a simplistic conclusion about Tory Britain in the '80s even if the activities of this particular household are personally fairly damning.
Viewed from the perspective of austerity Britain, the presentation of the economically booming Britain of the '80s is arguably even more compelling. The casual attitude to both drugs and wealth certainly gives food for thought and provides a significant reminder to the reader about the social legacy that underpins the political machinations of 21st century politicians, a significant number of whom would have partied with the best of them at the kind of parties detailed within the fabric of this novel.
There are few characters that are very likable in this novel and it is perhaps a telling fact that one of the most endearing characters is Catherine, Toby's 'mad' sister, who, more than anyone, sees the society that she frequents for what it really is.
I only really had one criticism of the novel. In my opinion, and this wasn't shared by my friend who I discussed the book with the other day, Hollinghurst's prose struck me as being a little pretentious at times; particularly with regard to his lexical choices, which reflected to me a slightly contrived attempt to puff up the intellectual clout of the narrative.
Overall, I would thoroughly recommend 'The Line of Beauty'. It immerses the reader in a fascinating period of history for the UK, giving an intense flavour of a Tory-led society that publicly struggled to keep a lid on the private cocktail of sex, drugs and sexuality that bubbled underneath, threatening to shatter the foundations of the family-centric idyll of Conservatism.
The Line of Beauty is a novel of the 80s, capturing the spirit of a decade - at least for one strata of society - but it also has themes of belonging and class which are relevant across the ages. The protagonist is Nick, a young gay man who becomes caught up in the hedonistic world of his rich friend's family. The novel charts his induction and ascendence in the world of the super rich and famous, and his eventual downfall.
The writing throughout is as pretty as the title suggests. Occasionally it goes a bit far and you find your attention wandering, but this is a rare occurrence in a longish novel. It's an enjoyable and readable story, and Hollinghurst captures the characters and situations very well. Despite the snobbish Nick's preoccupation with beautiful objects, the real strength of the writing lies in capturing the ambiguity and awkwardness of social encounters. For all Nick's smooth charm, there is always the underlying feeling that he doesn't fit in as well as likes to think.
Nick's obsession with beauty cleverly throws into focus the ugliness of wealth and greed. The characters are all easy to dislike, apart perhaps from Toby, Nick's good natured but unimaginative friend. However, despite the grotesque aspect the characters sometimes take on, I found all those depicted completely believable. My reaction to them was as genuine as if I'd actually met them. The novel is suffused with the arrogant complacency of the truly (monetarily) wealthy, even when diaster strikes. Although I couldn't really like Nick, with his fawning and selfishness, I did feel rather sorry for him.
There are several scenes of pretty explicit gay sex - so a reader with a strong aversion to scenes of this kind may be better avoiding the novel. But it doesn't dominate the story and I didn't feel this was a particularly sex-obsessed novel. The latter part of the novel brings in the topic of AIDS - a newly emerging plague in the 80s. The storylines around this are handled sensitively and again the slow destruction of several characters through the disease contrasts sharply with the ideas of beauty explored elsewhere in the story.
Overall, I found the novel thought provoking, well written and an enjoyable story to read. I would certainly read another of Hollinghurst's books, and it is certainly one of the worthier winners of the Booker prize in recent years.
One of the biggest challenges of any novelist is to provide a perspective that's accessible to us and helpful in understanding what's being portrayed. Alan Hollinghurst has achieved remarkable results by stationing his narrator, Nick Guest, outside of all the worlds he inhabits. Guest is like a spirit rising amused over the action that can draw us a picture while recording every sound that's created or uttered.
Here are the worlds that Guest helps us explore:
-Tory MP life during the Thatcher years
-Young Oxford graduates looking for a place
-A young man exploring his homosexuality
-Wealthy British on the make for more
-Middle-aged married life
-Inner life of a young manic-depressive
The book's overall theme is about everyday hypocrisy and the large price that has to be paid by those who pretend to be other than what they are and believe.
The story evolves in three time periods: 1983, 1986, and 1987. In all three years, Nick Guest resides with the family of an Oxford friend where the father is a rising conservative MP. Nick has an unofficial role as low-cost lodger to keep on eye on the friend's troubled sister. The family knows that Nick is looking for a boy friend and is open about accepting his sexuality. The three years give us a chance to learn more about the characters and to see how their relationships change. The 1987 period brings all that had been known in private into public with large consequences for all.
The book is filled with great scenes where nuances of knowledge, awareness, perception, accent, and perspective separate and unite the characters. Often, contrasting scenes occur back-to-back so that the contrasts are even more obvious. You'll gain a deeper insight into British society than you could on your own.
Ultimately, I feel that a work of fiction must be judged by how successfully it takes you into a world you have never been in before and allows you to understand that world much better. Any novel that can help me understand what it's like to be gay during the AIDS epidemic while giving me a strong sense of Thatcher's leadership has to be pretty terrific because those dimensions are outside my experience and normal reading.
As a person who enjoys art, I was most impressed by the way that the ogee was worked into the story to provide a connecting metaphor for our common humanity.
on 11 November 2013
Hollinghurst's PhD was about homosexuality in Forster, Firbank and Hartley, and he's used a series of novels to point up the gay's dilemmas at various stages of c20. In Lo B we're in 1980s, where Greed is Good and corruption at the heart of public life, But when the affluent Feddens need, first a babysitter (for their bi-polar daughter) and then a scapegoat for the disgrace which comes to them (partly through her) they turn to, or on, the gay person whom until now they have been content to admit and even cultivate, seeing him not so much as a gay but as a eunuch. The situation is complicated by the use of cocaine (one meaning of 'The line of beauty') in which Nick (central character) is complicit - but AH's essential point is, despite the 'permissiveness' not available to earlier gays like Firbank, secrecy and pretence is still the order of the day, with the threat of Aids ever-present. An excellent piece, with a strong plot-line and facing a tough issue.